Monday, June 18, 2012

Otis Spann Lived The Bluesman's Life

Otis Spann is among my favorites as a blues performer, not simply as a blues pianist. I had the pleasure of doing this review which appeared in the October 1997 (Issue 225) Jazz & Blues Report. I likely received the review copy from the record label or a publicist. It is most available used or as mp3 downloads. 

Otis Spann’s star shined all too briefly in the blues world and the release of previously unissued recordings by one of the greatest of all blues pianists (with Muddy Waters and band), Live the Life (Testament/Hightone) is something for longtime blues enthusiasts to take notice of.

This collection of 16 mostly live performances includes five with Muddy Waters on acoustic guitar (and possibly Willie Dixon on bass) which offer a wonderful rendition of his Tribute to Martin Luther King as well as a stunning rendition of Big Maceo’s Worried Life Blues. These are followed by seven concert performances by Muddy Waters. After Spann opens up with Kansas City and a very impassioned vocal on Tin Pan Alley, he steps back to an accompanist role behind Waters’ four vocals, including a fine 5 Long Years, Willie Dixon’s Live the Life I Love, and Waters’ own Can’t Lose What You Never Had.

One would not characterize any of these twelve recordings as high fidelity, but all the vocals are quite audible, and Spann’s piano accompaniments and solos are quite prominent in the mix. These performances with the Waters band are particularly interesting in that Muddy’s vocals are not as mannered as some of his later vocals, and Spann’s playing is marvelous. In his brief liner notes, Dick Shurman notes one aspect of Spann’s brilliance may be an outgrowth of his low-key approach. In this day of over amplified in-your-face guitarists, the subtlety and pacing of Spann’s piano stands out even more so. Furthermore, his own smokey vocals are perhaps more ingratiating today when few can sing this material with Spann’s natural authority.

With the uneven quality of the sound, one cannot recommend this without reservations for the casual listener, although it is a very important addition to his discography.

Here is Spann performing with the Muddy Waters Band

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